Reports of physical and verbal threats against those running for office could lead to fewer opportunities for the public to interact directly with MPs, reports Stewart Sowman-Lund.
It’s long been an accepted tenet of New Zealand’s political system that candidates and MPs, particularly during election campaigns, are easily accessible to voters. Whether it be at electorate clinics, town hall meetings or on walkabouts, the New Zealand public has historically had a near unprecedented level of access to those in, or campaigning for, power.
But that access requires trust and a sense of safety from all parties, and a series of alleged incidents over the past few weeks suggests that trust is waning. While it’s not unheard of for political leaders to face tense public confrontations – think mud-slinging and dildo throwing at Waitangi – these latest events have led to police action and widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum.
On Saturday, claims were made of a “politically motivated” invasion at the home of 21-year-old Te Pāti Māori candidate Hana-Rawhiti Maipi Clark. “This escalation of danger is what happens when right wing politicians race bait and fear monger for votes,” the party said in a statement. “They have emboldened this type of behaviour. Now it is time we embolden ourselves.”
Earlier the same day, Labour candidate Angela Roberts reported being slapped by a member of the public at a candidates event in Taranaki. “He slapped my cheeks with both hands,” she said. “At this point I walked away and gathered my things and he left. Others checked that I was OK. I said that I was and left for home.”
Just yesterday, the National Party claimed one of its candidates had also had their home broken into, while alleging another was forced to move house after a gang threat. Another was reportedly filmed by a senior Headhunters member who then shared the footage online alongside an “abusive and intimidating” message.
The threat of possible violence has permeated even the smallest of community events. The Spinoff attended two regional candidates events in the central North Island over the past week, where it emerged police had been placed on call in case there was a need for security. The organiser of a Rotary Club candidate event in Taihape confirmed they had been asked in advance by a candidate about what security measures were being put in place, while police had been made aware of a similar event in Waipukurau. Ultimately, the security was not needed.
In Northland, Labour’s Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime recently spoke out about the level of abuse she had faced during this election campaign, including at a particularly tetchy candidates debate. She told The Spinoff that after the event she had people telling her it was “unsafe” and she was offered security to accompany her back to her car. “I think the heckling gets downplayed,” she said. “I had shoulder pats and sympathetic comments, but no one actually called it out and told them to cut it out.” (New Zealand First’s Shane Jones, who was at the event, has since told The Spinoff he regretted how the debate played out and said he should have intervened.).
On another occasion, Prime described being verbally abused in public while she was at a playground with her young child. “I was in the car and I could hear [a woman] say ‘oh that fucking Willow-Jean Prime, she’s useless’. My daughter came running back from the playground and jumped in the car and the lady realised I was in the car, saw my child and then she yelled at me: ‘I hope you lose Willow-Jean Prime!’”
All of this has got former electorate MP and cabinet minister Peter Dunne worried that New Zealand is at a turning point when it comes to the level of access members of the public have to politicians.
Dunne was the MP for the Wellington seat of Ōhāriu from 1984 until 2017, serving as a cabinet minister during this time as well. He told The Spinoff that public campaigning appeared to be more difficult now than it historically had been. “While people had their differences and would certainly not hesitate to tell you if they disagreed with you, there was a much more calm and assured way of going about it than there seems to be at present,” he said of his time spent running for office.
“I’ve been to raucous meetings, but there was never any suggestion of police being involved to calm things down or break things up.”
Dunne said that throughout his tenure as a local MP he would host a Saturday morning electorate clinic that involved him being alone in his office with constituents. “There are risks involved in that, but the idea that that couldn’t take place or there would have to be a security person present just inhibits the whole democratic process,” he said.
Senior Labour MP Kieran McAnulty has faced precisely this problem. He told The Spinoff he had been warned against publicising the location of his “mobile office”, a converted campervan that allowed him to reach constituents in rural parts of his electorate, because of death threats. This was disappointing, he said, and made it harder to engage with a wide proportion of the public.
“Parliamentary security advised me that I had to go easy on [it] so we were just turning up without advertising beforehand. The problem with that is that not many people know that we’re there so we haven’t been getting great turnouts… it’s really shit,” he said.
“You try to do a good job as a local MP in a rural area and give everyone a crack and then [a] small percentage of people ruin it for everyone.”
Dunne said his fear was that this election would be a “watershed” in terms of the public’s ability to directly access candidates and parliamentarians. “I think the flow-on effect will be, particularly in Wellington… you’re used to seeing your member of parliament wandering around the street in their lunch break. I don’t think you’re going to see that to nearly the same extent anymore because of fears about safety,” he said.
Another former MP, Amy Adams, who served as a minister under John Key, said that running for public office had never been an easy task. “It was certainly pretty vitriolic and challenging when I was campaigning as well. It was never an easy process, it’s always been a tough, demanding process that takes a lot of physical and mental endurance,” the former Selwyn MP told The Spinoff.
However, Adams admitted that while she had some “pretty brutal verbal engagements” with members of the public, there had never been a time when she felt the police needed to be involved. Currently, the police are investigating the allegations made by both Labour’s Angela Roberts and Te Pāti Māori’s Hana-Rawhiti Maipi Clark.
There had always been a “security element” when MPs were in their communities, Adams believed. “Sadly that’s a consequence of New Zealand being very connected to our communities way more than other politicians are – which I think is a good thing,” she said.
Kris Faafoi, a minister in the Ardern government and ex-MP for Mana, said any candidate running for office in 2023 needed to be wary. “I’m sure candidates are still going and getting a cup of tea and a pikelet at some of the more tame candidates meetings… but it seems a lot more testy,” he told The Spinoff. “It’s more tense out there in the public, I could see that happening over the last couple of years. It’s certainly new territory for what the current candidates are facing compared to when I began in 2010.”
While people were always entitled to be “upset and angry”, Faafoi said there was a line that should not be crossed and believed that had been reflected by political leaders across the spectrum.
For example, National Party leader Christopher Luxon yesterday acknowledged that it had been tough for candidates out in the community and condemned any threats or intimidation against any political candidate, their family or their property. “We think anyone from any political party should be free to step forward with their plans,” he told reporters.
Labour’s finance spokesperson Grant Robertson, stepping in for Covid-stricken Chris Hipkins, believed it was “worse” to be a candidate today than had been in previous elections. “I think that’s probably been an evolution over the last few years,” he told media. “There has always been tension in campaigns, there’s always been defacing of billboards and so on – but I think some of the things we’ve seen and heard in recent times indicate a higher degree of that this time.”
People needed to have “their wits about them” more now than they would have “two or three elections ago”, agreed Faafoi.
Dunne’s now concerned that the public may lose the opportunity to freely see their local member of parliament, or senior candidates, out in the community. While this election campaign has still seen leaders like Luxon and Hipkins wandering around malls and on street corners, Dunne’s worried the current polarised environment could end that style of campaigning.
“The last thing I want to see is a situation where every politician is accompanied by a security detail,” said Dunne.